When a medium-fancy friend of mine recently joined me for dinner at a medium-fancy Bay Area restaurant, she recoiled when our waitress told her the price of certain Syrah: $8 a glass. Her horror wasn’t at the cost — although it certainly could have been. Instead, she was realizing that since many of this restaurant’s wines were in the $10-15-a-glass range, this $8 glass might very well have been a dollar-store special of dubious quaffability.
Now, this same friend regularly — and happily — purchases bottles of wine for $8 or less. “If it tastes good, I take great personal satisfaction in getting that deal and having a delicious glass of wine at the same time,” she says. Still, she’s all too aware of the steep restaurant markup on wine. Wines by the glass can be sold for as much or more than the retail price of the bottle — allowing restaurants to immediately recoup their costs and to drive consumers toward purchasing a whole bottle. Bottles are typically priced for two to three times their retail value. “Once you get more savvy about the markup, it does feel a little obnoxious — but I like to pair my food with wine,” my friend concludes. “And there’s nothing more disappointing than a bad glass of wine.”
That love of wine, and fear of disappointment, are just what restaurateurs are banking on — literally. But this phenomenon may be less about greed and more about self-preservation.
“The big thing with wine is, after you open it, it’s going to go bad pretty quickly,” says Rolan Reichel, an Oakland resident and former restaurateur now working in the beverage industry. Reichel explains that offering wines by the glass can actually be a money loser for restaurants. “Unless you’re really busy, you’re going to end up with a lot of half-empty bottles at the end of the night. You can lose a lot of money on your wine program.” This is why, Reichel explains, you see many restaurants experimenting with different-sized pours, carafes, and other ways of getting the consumer to drink more and try more-expensive brands. “For a lot of restaurants, wine by the glass is a service. That’s why people try all these other things. If they made money, they wouldn’t tinker with it.”
For Rick Mitchell, proprietor of Luka’s Taproom and the new Franklin Square Wine Bar in downtown Oakland, “tinkering with it” has meant half off every bottle on Luka’s wine list every Sunday night.
“Sunday nights were slower for us, so we wanted a way to bring people in,” explains Mitchell, adding that the discount gives patrons who typically order by the glass a good reason to try something new. “We wanted to give people incentive to open the wine list and order a bottle.” Ideally this would give some of the higher-priced wines on the list a bit of added exposure — that $80 bottle you’d normally skip right over looks a little more tempting at $40. Unfortunately, says Mitchell, it doesn’t really work out that way. “Ninety percent of the people come in and get the cheapest bottle we offer, at half off,” he notes with a chuckle.
Luka’s 50-percent-off-a-bottle night is just one example of how many restaurants are bowing to an increasingly savvy and wine-thirsty consumer. A comparable trend is the waiving of corkage fees — the amount a restaurant charges when you bring your own bottle — either all the time or on regular no-corkage-fee nights. Anecdotal evidence shows these nights generate huge business; my local place is often booked solid, with a line of walk-ins out the door. There’s also a convivial atmosphere, attributable to the fact that restaurants are giving their patrons not just a break from “obnoxious” markups, but also a chance to strut their own wine knowledge and make their own choices about which wines to pair with what’s on the menu.
Lest you feel your expertise is lacking in that area, we’ve enlisted some advice from Natalie MacLean, author of Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass. A noted authority on food-and-wine pairing, MacLean offers an interactive matching tool on NatalieMacLean.com; here she recommends the good varietals and regions to look for at the liquor store when choosing what to drink with various cuisines.
MacLean’s suggestions accompany a list of six restaurants we think are noteworthy for their consumer-friendly wine programs. Consider a visit — and if you want to make the night a real steal, consult archived Wineau columns for the best bargains among the varietals mentioned, and where to find them.